A Family Member’s Suicide Made Me Re-Examine My Mental Health

As a 12-year-old in a New York City public school, the day before I attempted suicide, I reached out to the school therapist. I was told she was too busy and that I should come back tomorrow.

Even though I was in therapy at the time, I didn’t completely feel comfortable sharing my emotions with my therapist. While she tried her best to be warm and welcoming, as a white person she couldn’t fully understand or empathize with many of the obstacles I was struggling with.

Black Americans face multiple challenges when it comes to mental health care

Finding a Black therapist can be incredibly challenging. Not only do you have to find one who takes your insurance or has a low copay but, the number of Black therapists is devastatingly low.

According to the American Psychological Association, African Americans only account for 4.24% of psychologists in the United States. (Psychologists make up roughly one-third of mental health professionals; therapists can also be substance abuse counselors, licensed professional clinical counselors, licensed clinical social workers, or marriage and family therapists.)

The Loveland Foundation aims to “bring opportunity and healing to communities of color,” particularly to Black women and girls, and has a therapy fund that helps defray costs. Other organizations such as Therapy for Black Girls and Black Men Heal are trying to bridge that gap and attract more Black people of all ages to try therapy.

“This started off with myself and several therapists volunteering our time and office spaces to ensure this program could happen,” said Zakia Williams, cofounder and chief operating officer of Black Men Heal.

Established in 2018, Black Men Heal was created as a resource to help more Black men on their mental health journey. Unfortunately, men are often pressured not to show emotions, not only in the Black community, but in American society in general.

“We tell our boys that showing emotion is a feminine thing. So, then they grow up and they don’t show emotion,” Williams said. “When we are trying to get men to talk about their feelings and open up about being vulnerable, it’s been embedded in them intergenerationally for so long that they immediately shut down.”

With rates of suicide in Black males ages 10 to 19 increasing by 60% in the past 20 years, Black Men Heal aims to decrease those numbers by destigmatizing therapy.

“Just like if you have a toothache, you go to the dentist — mental health should be seen in the same light,” Williams said.

Therapy for Black Girls is another organization that provides resources and help for people to get therapy.

“My core group is always going to be Black women because we are essentially the backbone of our community,” said Krystal Miller, social worker and owner of Melanated Mask.

Melanated Mask is a mental health center in New York that focuses on holistic mental health practices for BIPOC people. The center offers trauma-centered yoga, integrative mental health coaching, herbal solutions, and psychotherapy to help people on their mental health journeys.

Since 2018, Miller’s clinic has been advertised on Therapy for Black Girls with the goal of attracting Black people of all ages to experience the power of therapy.

“I kind of always knew that this is what I wanted to do,” Miller said. “I was doing a lot of peer counseling within my high school and within my Queens community.”

A large part of Miller’s work focuses on Black women, who are often seen as the glue holding communities together. While women are twice as likely to experience depression as men, Black women are only half as likely to seek care as white women.

“One thing that I’ve always asked whenever I did workshops for other Black and Brown women was: When’s the last time that you saw your mother cry? Many can’t answer that question,” Miller said. “Your mother is human. She has emotions. But she has to hold it together to get everybody else in line.”

Therapy may help you deal with systemic racism and generational trauma

Therapy may also help millions of Black Americans around the country who have experienced systemic racism that has seeped into numerous facets of our everyday lives.

“A lot of times we’re encouraging folks to just go talk to somebody, but we forget that we have intergenerational trauma that got passed down,” Miller said.

When enslaved people were emotionally, physically, and sexually traumatized and then liberated without any psychological or economic restoration, this caused trauma that reverberates down through the generations, writes Dr. Joy DeGruy in her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. “Due to being held captive, abused, raped and mutilated for the means of economic wealth, these formally enslaved peoples showed signs of what can best be described as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” she writes.

During the Black Lives Matter protest of 2020, billions of Black people around the world were exposed to traumatic images of violence against Black bodies. Between May 25 and June 5, content relating to Black Lives Matter was viewed on social media over 1.4 billion times. The extreme coverage and often uncensored videos and images have retraumatized generations of people in the Black community.

“While some people felt good about finally having these conversations on an international scale, some were drastically impacted with negative effects on their mental health,” Vance said. “This is where terminology such as ‘racial trauma’ pops up and we start learning that type of language. It’s not just traumatizing; this is racial trauma, which is uniquely different for Black, Indigenous, and other folks of color, because it impacts them specifically.”

Destigmatizing language is one of the easiest ways to make therapy appealing. Pushing back against phrases such as “he/she is crazy” or “therapy isn’t for Black people” can help break that social stigma associated with therapy and make it appear less scary to some.

“We need to keep the media accountable when they’re utilizing language that is stigmatizing,” Vance said. “We need more mental health professionals entering those spaces and having those conversations.”

When I was in therapy as a 12-year-old, I didn’t feel fully comfortable expressing all of my emotions. Now as a 23-year-old with a therapist who not only looks like me but can relate to my experiences, I can say: It really does work wonders.